“...We all know certain foods serve better than others when it comes to providing energy and health. And we also know our spiritual values ultimately require us to have the energy to act. When we decide to eat things that aren’t ideal, we know on a certain level we are choosing to limit the energy we have to live our beliefs. Of course food is also a source of pleasure, and virtually all spiritual traditions would say it’s something we’re meant to enjoy. But this complex balance between “food as fuel” and “food as fun” gives us an opportunity to examine our self-awareness. Each time we eat, we have a chance to look at how much we wish to focus on our own pleasure and how much we want to think about serving those around us. By being more mindful, we can move toward a balance that runs closer to our beliefs, choosing foods that provide the right blend of pleasure and energy for service of others.”
‘We all know what it’s like to have the state of our bodies influence or even over-ride our intentions. We’ve all had moments – probably very many, in fact – when we’ve been less patient or kind or present than we wanted to be simply because our bodies were tired or ill or simply not feeling good. We’ve all had moments when we’ve compromised values or failed to live up to them because our heads were a little less clear due to choices in diet or lifestyle or our bodies were “out of sorts.” The fact is, when we fail to care for our bodies it has a direct impact on our states of mind. And when our minds are not clear, it is extremely difficult or even impossible to live our spiritual beliefs.
‘By contrast, the Yogis realized that, when our bodies are healthy and peaceful, our minds naturally become more clear and controlled. And when our minds are centered, it is much, much easier for us to hold on to and work toward our values.’
Source: Spirituality and Fitness
He doesn’t make shoes
Or design any shirt
Or take photographs
But no-one gets hurt
And he doesn’t look trendy
Like guys in magazines
You won’t see him at parties
He’s not the face behind the scenes
He makes nothing
He’s the nothing maker
He’s the maker of nothing
He’s the nothing maker
And he doesn’t paint pictures
Or write poetry
Or work on the stage
For others to see
And he don’t expect much
As Santa Claus knows
‘Cause he doesn’t make lists
Of toys and new clothes
He makes nothing
He’s the nothing maker
He’s the maker of nothing
He’s the nothing maker
A reason to live
Mostly they take more than they give
The succeeder justifies
Why he needs more than the rest
Believes his own lies
And thinks he’s the best
My guy doesn’t make movies
To suit an audience’s whim
He lives by a code
Known only to him
He doesn’t make money
To buy watches and cars
‘Cause there’s no time and no place to go
For a man who has nothing to show
He makes nothing
He’s the nothing maker
He’s the maker of nothing
He’s the nothing maker
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Yoga in Action
boarding school in the United Kingdom run by Benedictine monks. As Catholic upbringings go it was only moderately strict, with none of the standard cliches of emotional and physical abuse. But it was very, very serious. The idea of sacrifice features prominently in Catholicism. Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice on the cross was held up to us as the pinnacle of worthy behavior. Self-denial and ascetism in surrender to god’s will were highly prized. We were to abjure the pleasures of the flesh and doggedly say our Rosary, eat fish on Fridays and abstain from mundane luxuries during Lent. We were to revel in the exquisite pain of devotion to god.
liturgy, played out over and over again, shapes your emotional responses, helping you to identify with Jesus’ surrender and martyrdom, with the resurrection at the end of the tale providing a satisfying sense of completion. My first introduction to a group yoga class was at Jivamukti Yoga in their old space on Second Avenue in New York. The Jivamukti class as it was back then (I haven’t taken class there in some years) had its own ritual power with all the same elements, and its own liturgical drama. The intense physicality fit in perfectly with my Catholic notions of mortification of the flesh. All of that regimentation of the breath, intense exertion, incense and chanting produced the same buzz as High Mass on Sundays in the abbey. But that ecstatic connection always came, I found, with a price: after Mass, the return to mundane existence; after class, aches, pains, and exhaustion.
For four or five years I practiced this way: the grand gesture of surrender and sacrifice leading to the ecstatic high of immersion in the divine. And then real life got in the way and my inner drama was replaced by the real thing. First came the loss of my father to cancer, followed by my struggle to find work and stay in the country. The big emotions of yoga became an escape from the darker things that were happening to me. One turbulence was replaced by the other, constantly flipping back and forth. It was exhausting.
Mysore-style Ashtanga practice being put into Marichyasana 2, I found myself unable to take class for several moths. At the inspiration of a friend, I decided to try the courses in the back of Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar, starting at the beginning and struggling through as best I could with my lack of experience and injured knee. It took me about a year of dedicated practice to get through the first course. This steady perseverance changed my relationship to yoga completely. Small, consistent effort produced steady, consistent results.
When I look back over that time, I realize this was when my thought processes first began to shift from being more Western in outlook to taking on a truly Eastern flavor. The Judaeo-Christian frame of mind can be very mechanical in its way: agony now in the hope of luxury later. Sacrifice is something you take away from yourself. The Eastern way, or certainly that aspect of it I have learnt though yoga, is more of an offering. Effort is made with enthusiasm and dedication, building joy and freedom in the present. I see my practice now as an offering, building awareness and balance action by action, thought by thought, moment by moment with the certainty of immediate and concrete results.
So I throw this back to you, dear reader: is your practice a sacrifice or an offering?
[My thanks to Donald Moyer and his “Heritage of Yoga” course for the inspiration for this post.]
Yoga in Action
The Great Vow of Yoga
"Maybe you think it gives you free will. Maybe you've forgotten that sleepwalkers converse, drive vehicles, commit crimes and clean up afterward, unconscious the whole time. maybe nobody's told you that even waking souls are only slaves in denial.
"Make a conscious choice. Decide to move your index finger. Too late! The electricity's already halfway down your arm. Your body began to act a full half-second before your conscious self "close" to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary--almost an afterthought--to the homunculus behind your eyes. That little man, that arrogant subroutine that thinks of itself as the person, mistakes correlation for causality: It reads the summary and it sees the hand move, and it thinks that one drove the other.
"But it's not in charge. You're not in charge. If free will even exists, it doesn't share living space with the likes of you.
"Insight, then. Wisdom. The quest for knowledge, the derivation of theorems, science and technology and all those exclusively Human pursuits that must surely rest on a conscious foundation. Maybe that's what sentience would be for--if scientific breakthroughs didn't spring fully formed from the subconscious mind,. manifest themselves in dreams, as full-blown insights after a deep night's sleep. It's the most basic rule of the stymied researcher: stop thinking about the problem. Do something else. It will come to you if you just stop being conscious of it.
"Every concert pianist knows that the surest way to ruin a performance is to be aware of what the fingers are doing. Every dancer and acrobat knows enough to let the mind go, let the body run itself. Every driver of any manual vehicle arrives at destinations with no recollection of the stops and turns and roads travelled in getting there. You are all sleepwalkers, whether climbing creative peaks or slogging through some mundane routine for the thousandth time. You are all sleepwalkers.
"Don't even try to talk about the learning curve. Don't bother citing the months of deliberate practice that precede the unconscious performance, or the years of study and experiment leading up to the gift-wrapped eureka moment. So what if your lessons are all learned consciously? Do you think that proves there's no other way? Heuristic software's been learning from experience for over a hundred years. Machines master chess, cars learn to drive themselves, statistical programs face problems and design the experiments to solve them and you think that the only path to learning leads through sentience? You're Stone Age nomads eking out some marginal existence on the veldt--denying even the possibility of agriculture, because hunting and gathering was good enough for your parents.
"Oh, but you can't. There's something in the way.
"And it's fighting back."
The above is an excerpt from the challenging but excellent hard scifi/post-cyberpunk novel "Blindsight" by Peter Watts. It tells the story of a first contact attempt with an utterly alien and potentially hostile species in deep space by a team of astronauts.
"Verbally we can go only so far. What lies beyond cannot be put into words because the word is not the thing. Up to now, we can describe, explain, but no words or explanations can open the door. What will open the door is daily awareness and attention: awareness of how we speak, what we say, how we walk, what we think. It is like cleaning a room and keeping it in order. Keeping the room in order is important in one sense, but totally unimportant in another. There must be order in the room, but order will not open the door or the window. What will open the door is not your volition or desire. You cannot possible invite the other. All you can do is to keep the room in order, which is to be virtuous for itself, not for what it will bring. To be sane, rational, orderly. Then perhaps, if you are lucky, the window will open and the breeze will come in."
(The punctuation might be a bit off. For some reason I couldn't find my copy of the book and had to transcribe it from a lecture series I've ben listening to.)
"Please Explain: The Science of Consciousness
When you see a blue flower, do you see the same blue flower that I do? When you feel cold is it the same sensation I feel? On Please Explain we look at the biology of consciousness...and what brain science reveals about who we are and how we experience the world around us.
Gerald Edelman is a Nobel Laureate, Director of The Neurosciences Institute, and author of many books about the neurobiology of consciousness including Wider Than the Sky. Christof Koch is Professor of Biology and Engineering at the California Institute of Technology and author of The Quest for Consciousness."
I should say here, in the interests of disclosure, that I find myself in what might seem a peculiar position given that I am a practitioner and teacher of Yoga. I do not believe in an over-arching consciousness that creates and/or directs the material world, though I do believe in deeper structures of subjectivity, consciousness and connection, not unlike the stance of Buddhism. From my perspective, it always cracks me up that those who state the case for god and religion find it impossible to believe that an atheist can have any kind of moral code, or that their inner life is somehow crippled.
This recent interview in Salon.com (thanks to the very excellent Souljerky for the link) is a lot more benign and balanced than most, but theologian John Haught puts forward the idea that hope is not justifiable in a world devoid of god. Here is Haught's response to the interviewer's question "But why can't you have hope if you don't believe in God?"
You can have hope. But the question is, can you justify the hope? I don't have any objection to the idea that atheists can be good and morally upright people. But we need a worldview that is capable of justifying the confidence that we place in our minds, in truth, in goodness, in beauty. I argue that an atheistic worldview is not capable of justifying that confidence. Some sort of theological framework can justify our trust in meaning, in goodness, in reason.
From a yogic point of view, I would suggest that the worldview he envisions is nothing more than a fluctuation of consciousness that, held onto too tightly, might prevent one from seeing what is actually there. Anyway, I am neither a theologian nor a professional philosopher. Here and here, also from Salon.com, are two interviews with Richard Dawkins from two and a half years ago to offer the other side's perspective.
And here is a very entertaining skeptic's perspective from performer Tim Minchin:
Richard Dawkins: "The Root of All Evil"
Teaching Them To Accept The Snake
This most recent episode is about the Four Humours of the body and temperament, an old idea with interesting parallels to the three doshas of Ayurveda.
Click here to get the realplayer stream.
The full translation of this would be “devotion to god,” but this can be misleading in the context of Classical Yoga. Religious yogins often use this discipline as a place to put their devotional practice in the context of the practice, but Patañjali’s intention here is a little different. Read More...
In Patañjali’s time, self-study meant taking it upon yourself to study the scriptures of your religion to better know your chosen deity. One of the beautiful things about Classical Yoga is its open-mindedness when it comes to religion.
As we have already seen, Patañjali is as much a stickler for regular practice as any music teacher or sports coach. Theory is all very well, but without practice it is meaningless.
Having being raised and educated Catholic by the very kind and compassionate Benedictine monks of Downside School (terrible name), I think I tend to agree that strict adherents to Christian sects should probably not be practicing yoga, as the goals of yoga, regardless of the lineage, tend to be very much incompatible with many of the Christian theologies.
Contentment, or satisfaction, is another discipline that needs to be addressed on two levels, that of achievement and that of the experience of time. Without contentment we cannot hope to be present and mindful.
Sometimes translated as cleanliness, there are two levels to the discipline of purity, both which lead to the same result: purity of the body and purity of the mind.
With the yamas, the Great Vow of Yoga, we condition our behavior in order to observe and adjust the way in which our worldly interactions affect our inner nature and vice versa. With the niyamas, Patañjali’s second limb in his eight-limbed path of yoga, we begin to condition our thoughts in order to set the stage for deeper insight. Read More...
Where the observance of Non-Coveting deals with the many things we see outside ourselves that we may want, Non-Hoarding deals with the things we already have.
This fourth observance is one which often makes people uncomfortable, as it seems on the surface to be tied in with moralizing and repression. However, what use is chastity or celibacy when the mind is tormented with desire. This would merely be self-torture, as dissipating an indulgence as sexual licentiousness. Two of the root causes of affliction common to us all are attraction, the product of desire, and aversion, the product of pain. The observance of continence calls upon us to moderate all our desires, be they sexual or otherwise. Read More...
As we have seen in our discussion of truthfulness and honesty, the mind has the ability to mold itself into the shape of that which it beholds. Especially in our many moments of lack of self-awareness, human consciousness has the tendency to turn its aspect outwards towards the material world. On an animalistic level, this makes complete sense. How could we survive as a species if we went around being unconcerned with the world around us? Many of the fundamental drives hard-wired into our genes that enable us to live on as humans keep us tied to our pre-sentient past and prevent us from transcending that side of our nature and becoming truly free. Read More...
Yoga is the process of restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.
Then the observer can know its own true nature.
Otherwise, the observer identifies with the fluctuations of consciousness.
I would hope that not causing harm is an idea that requires no justification. The harm that we cause others and to the world around us, as individuals, as a community, as a nation and as a species is a significant factor contributing to the general level of sorrow we experience as part of simple existence. Patañjali, in the Yoga Sutra, is quite clear about his feelings regarding sorrow and what must be our attitude towards it.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patañjali calls the yamas, the observances towards others, “The Great Vow of Yoga”:
These are universal, and apply regardless of birth, place, time or circumstance.
More after the jump.
One of the main concerns of Yoga, as expressed in the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali, is sorting out the yogin’s true, essential and eternal self from that which is other, that which is temporary and changing. By becoming able to distinguish between the two, the yogin hopes to free him or herself from the anguish and suffering of existence and perhaps even cease the continual cycle of death and rebirth. Patañjali states it succinctly in his opening verses:
Yoga is the process of restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness.
Then the observer can know its own true nature.
Otherwise, the observer identifies itself with the fluctuations of consciousness.
Patañjali’s way of thinking about existence and the mind resonates strongly with modern scientific thought. He expresses many of his ideas in terms of energy. For him, thought is an energetic activity of the mind. The word he uses to represent this, vrtti, often gets translated as “fluctuation.” Think of the surface of a pond. When the water is perfectly still, the surface becomes transparent and it becomes possible to see all the way to the bottom. Drop a rock into the pond and the surface is disturbed with ripples. The bottom of the pond becomes obscured.
If the mind is filled with thoughts and emotions, the fluctuations are strong and energetic and the mind can become easily distracted. It makes little difference if the thoughts and emotions are positive or negative. The seductive memory of a pleasant experience can be just as involving as, say, the righteous anger towards someone who has done us wrong. And when the mind is wrapped up in those thoughts, Patañjali says it takes their shape and it ceases to be self-aware. That self-awareness is akin to the clarity of the pond water that enables us to see the bottom. Without it we will be unable to see plainly the world around us for what it is. We will always be at the mercy of circumstance and a slave to our emotions.
This may not seem like such a bad thing when we are happy, or when our fortunes are on the up. But just as every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining has a potential cloud. Basing your identity on the blessing of your life can be just as fraught as identifying yourself with those things that limit you. If we define ourselves by the insults levied against us, how can we ever rise above them? And if we become attached to the good things in our lives, how will we feel when they are threatened? Without the discernment and self-awareness that comes with a calm and open mind, we will never be able to go deep enough to find the enduring freedom of an enlightened life.
The Idea in Practice
Our yoga practice gives us a perfect place to begin to address and work with the fluctuations of the mind. Here are four ways to approach your asana practice and take it out of the physical and into the spiritual plane.
Practice #1: Becoming Aware
The first thing is to observe how different kinds of poses affect the mind. At the beginning of your practice, check in with your thoughts. Observe their quality without going too deep into their content. Is the mind sluggish and lethargic, or is it vibrant and fluid? Do you feel up or down, happy or melancholic? Do the same after you have finished and note the change, if any. Keep track of your practice in a journal and note the following:
- What was the quality of your thoughts at the beginning of practice?
What type of poses did you practice overall (back bends, forward bends, standing poses, etc.)?
What was the quality of your thoughts at the end of practice?
In this way build up an understanding of how the different types of poses affect the energy of the body and mind.
Practice #2: Tracking the Flow
Once you begin to have a grasp on how an entire practice can affect the fluctuations of the mind, you can begin to observe how the mind and body can fluctuate within an individual practice. Poses in a practice are generally grouped together by type. We do some standing poses, then perhaps a seated pose or two, then inversions, and so on. At the end of each section, check in with yourself and observe how the quality of the body and mind has changed. Each section becomes like an act in a play, or a verse in a poem, each with its own idea, its own message and effect.
Practice #3: Becoming Mindful
To go deeper, start to observe the fluctuations of the mind pose by pose. Observe where you begin to lose yourself in the pose, either because the sensation is strongly pleasant or strongly uncomfortable. Observe also the moments when the mind is thrown out of the pose to think about something completely irrelevant. Start to become aware of patterns in your practice along these lines. Does a certain pose always have the same effect? Do you bliss out with some kinds of poses and sink into dread when faced with others?
Practice #4: Single-Pointed Focus
This last approach is perhaps the hardest. As you do your poses, can you observe your thoughts as if they were part of your body and not your mind? Can you find an inner perspective of calm self-awareness that allows you to experience both your body and the fluctuations of your mind as akin to a suit of clothing that you have put on, but that you could just as easily change?
This is a very subtle idea. At first you might not be able to truly experience it. If so, play with the idea as you practice. Think about it. Think about how it makes you feel. Pretend, even, that you can experience it. Eventually you might actually find yourself spontaneously in this mindset for short periods of time. When this happens, observe how the mind flip-flops between playing with the idea and truly experiencing it. As time goes on and the practice becomes firmly established, you can begin to take the exercise into your daily life and observe the changes it will create there.
"Please Explain: Sugar
On today's Please Explain, Dr. Jock Galloway and Sharon R. Akabas, Ph.D answer your questions about sugar. Jock Galloway is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto Department of Geography. Sharon R. Akabas is Associate Research Scholar, Director of M.S. in Nutrition Program, Columbia University Medical Center."
a single 1kg bottle of Fiji water consumes 26.88 kilograms of water (7.1 gallons) .849 Kilograms of fossil fuel (one litre or .26 gal) and emits 562 grams of Greenhouse Gases (1.2 pounds) during its manufacture and transport.
Check out the original article here.
Check out Treehugger.com's report on the article here.
Underreported: Caste Out
The Indian Constitution abolished discrimination based on caste over 50 years ago. Yet millions of Dalits (or "untouchables") still suffer from inequality. On today’s Underreported, Paul Divakar and Smita Narula examine caste-motivated killings, rapes, and other abuses suffered by Dalits. Paul Divakar is National Convenor of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights. Smita Narula is Faculty Director of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law, where she is also a Professor of the International Human Rights Clinic.
Hidden Apartheid Caste Discrimination against India’s “Untouchables”
"If climate change is affecting weather patterns, then it follows that it will also affect global food supplies. We'll look into what might happen to crop yields around the world, which crops are at risk, and whether we should be taking any steps to alleviate future problems. Leonard talks to Francesco Tubiello, research scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at the Earth Institute; and Stephen P. Long, professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois. Also: Andrew Revkin, who covers global warming and other environmental issues for The New York Times and is author of The North Pole Was Here."
"The Aztec king Montezuma drank liquid chocolate all day to enhance his libido. On today's Please Explain: which brands are tastiest, whether it has any real health benefits -- and why so many of us are addicted to it. Leonard talks to Clay Gordon, a chocolate critic who runs the website chocophile.com; and Dr. Ann E. Kelley, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison."
"This week’s Please Explain is all about meditation. We'll talk to Dr. Christopher Moore, Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at the Department of Brain and Cognitive Studies and a Principal Investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and Alan Wallace, the President and founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, about the ways people meditate and the effects it has on the brain and body."
"An Unselfish Brain?
Scientists believe they have found the part of the brain that predicts whether a person will be an altruist. Duke University researcher Dr. Scott Huettel explains what this "altruistic brain region" tells us about the origins of selfish and unselfish behavior."
"Please Explain: Vegetarianism"
November 10, 2006
Marion Nestle and Colin Spencer answer questions about vegetarianism on today's Please Explain. Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. Colin Spencer is the author of Vegetarianism: A History.
Piers Steel, Associate Professor at the University of Calgary, recently completed a 10-year research project on procrastination.
Dr. William Knaus is the author of several books on procrastination, including The Procrastination Workbook and Do It Now!.
Last summer, a study found that for some patients, a belief that they had taken a painkiller was enough to make their brains release natural painkilling endorphins. On today's Please Explain, Dr. Herbert Benson, the founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, and Dr. John Sarno discuss the mind/body connection on Please Explain.
In the discussion, the two doctors talk about the difference between "psychosomatics" of times past and modern Mind/Body medicine. The two doctors come firmly down on the side of such practices as prayer, meditation and yoga as they trigger what they refer to as the "relaxation response" which works against the deleterious effects of stress on the body's immune system.
Fascinating stuff and worth checking out.
Click here to download an mp3 of the show.
I love it how the religious people cannot conceive that atheists are capable of any form of morality.
I've become obsessed with Cesar Millan, star of the National Geographic Channel's show, The Dog Whisperer. I grew up with dogs, Great Danes, so initially I was enjoying the show on that level, but there was one episode which made me begin to think about his techniques in terms of yoga. In this particular segment, he brought in one of his own pack to educate a small, overly yappy dog, probably a pomeranian. Cesar's dog walked in completely casually and the pom went into overdrive, yapping up a storm. Despite the noise and aggressive behavior, Cesar's dog remained absolutely calm and unaffected by the whole display. It struck me, then, that this was the canine equivalent of enlightenment. The dog was calm, serene, engaged and yet not disturbed by its environment. If only human psychology were as simple as dog psychology. It would make it that much easier to reach a state of emancipation. (And I'd be out of a job!)
Cesar has three principles that he says all dogs need every day, in this order:
If a dog gets enough of these in that sequence, Millan says, the dog will be in balance in a calm, submissive state. I thought that sounded pretty good. If I get all of those in a given day, I consider that a good day. I'd like to propose that these three principles might work for humans to bring us into our own calm, balanced state.
Posture in yoga is used as a vehicle for inquiry into the self. Especially in Iyengar yoga, it becomes an intellectually rigorous practice of mental conditioning. But there is nothing wrong with using the physical postures as a vehicle for physical conditioning as well. A practice of the body may not get you any closer to emancipation (kaivalya), but it will keep you healthy, your muscles strong and elongated, your joints flexible and your physiology healthy. Getting yourself good and tired burns off stress and anxiety and frees the mind for healthy digestion, elimination and recuperation. Though you wouldn't necessarily want to practice vigourously every day, it is an important thing to work into your routine.
This really applies to your whole life, not just your asana practice. Have the discipline to focus intensely in at least one pose, to sit and meditate, or even to do any of the little chores around the house that you might slack off on. Have the discipline to behave well towards others, even those you might not like. Have the discipline to see to the needs of those you love or of who depend on you. Have the discipline to do your job well. Have the discipline to treat yourself well. (Moderation in all things, including moderation itself.)
Affection is food for the soul. Take the time to be with, or at least communicate in some way, with those you love. Interact with the world around you, especially with like-minded individuals that will love you back.
Fit each of these things into your day, every day, and I'll wager that your life will be rich and balanced.
This notion of release from misery was not a new idea, even then. From time immemorial, women and men have had an inkling of hope that there might be a way to end the turbulence of daily life. We cannot possibly know for how many thousands of years we humans have appealed to imagined higher beings that we hope have some sway over our world, our lives, our destinies, and to whom we might petition for our salvation.
All life is suffering
It is a basic tenet of Eastern philosophy that all life is suffering. The fact of suffering is the first of Buddha's Four Noble Truths. In the Yoga-Sutra, Patañjali tells us that the purpose of our existence is to overcome all future suffering.
Our births involve suffering, for mother and child. Our upbringings involve suffering with lessons hard learnt. Our relationships involve suffering with the thoughtless ways in which we sometimes behave towards each other, and with the inevitable separation, either in parting or in death, in which all relationships must end. We endure the suffering of physical pain and mental anguish, of injustice and of unfulfilled desires. It can get extremely grim.
The fact of suffering is as much a part of the fabric of our existence as is joy. We often allow our sufferings to define us, as much as we do our joys. But joy is, itself, part of the dynamic of suffering. We become attached to our joys and to our desires, and when we are separated from them, or denied them, once again we suffer.
Luckily for us, teachers such as Buddha and Patañjali tell us there is a cure for all this suffering. They offer us spiritual practices and ways of living that will give us tools to overcome this fundamental suffering that we all experience.
A note before we continue. These inquiries can be strong stuff and are not meant for the faint of heart. If you suffer from melancholy or outright depression, then this sort of practice is not meant for you. Even if you are generally a sturdy soul, the type of self-inquiry required by yogic discipline can, at times, be overwhelming. If at any point you begin to feel overwhelmed, stop the practice. Open your eyes and breathe. Get up and walk around. Go out into the sun and take a walk, or do some other form of exercise. Actively seek out some form of non-destructive enjoyment and bring yourself back to a state of balance. And then, perhaps, put away that specific practice for a period of time. Often all it takes is a glimmer of realization to spark off a multitude of changes. The healthy conscious mind is only the tip of the iceberg and sometimes needs to be left to its own devices to sort things out.
Take a moment, or several, to sit and observe how suffering has affected your life. This is quite a difficult inquiry to attempt, as you do not want to get caught up reliving the actual incidents of suffering. Look instead at who you are in the present moment and observe how the painful experiences of your life have shaped you.
Once you have made a general inventory of your present self, observe if those experiences of suffering have defined your life. Have they led you in any direction you might not have otherwise taken? Have they prevented you from doing things that might have been to your detriment, or have they prevented you from doing things that might have enriched you? The important thing is to attach no value to what you observe, be it positive or negative. Be as objective as possible.
Can you do the same with all the joys of your life? Observe how they have shaped you and how they may have defined you.
Go back to your observation of the moments of suffering. Consider your present self without those defining aspects of suffering. How would you be without them?
Then consider your present self without your defining joys. How would you be without them?
In this way, explore how the fact of joy and suffering has shaped your life and your sense of identity. Can you go beyond both, strip them both away, and truly observe the identity that lies beyond them? Can you observe the present self that is unaffected by joy or suffering? It is important to look at the two together, and not to think of being unaffected by joy as itself being in a state of misery.
As you go through your day, can you observe moment to moment how the aspects of joy and suffering are affecting your thoughts and actions?
Balance is as important in one's yoga practice as it is in life in general. Patañjali, in his Yoga-Sutra gives us two different, balanced yoga practices: Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. These would be taught within a very specific environment of study in a community of aspirants under the guidance of a guru. This is a very different environment from what we experience in the West in the 21st Century, where we can be separated and alienated from others around us, either by physical distance in rural communities or by simple anonymity in urban environments.
For myself, I am lucky to teach at one particular yoga center that has become something of a home for me. I have immense respect for all the other teachers there, all of us on the same path, all of us sharing knowledge, practicing together, helping each other out with problems, providing support - many of the things one could want from a community of like-minded individuals, or a sangha as it is referred to in Sanskrit. However, as a result of my work schedule, my personal practice, or sadhana, can sometimes be lacking. I have not had a teacher for almost two years now and rarely get to class. Luckily I have a practice partner with whom I get together once a week to practice for a couple of hours, but that is rarely enough to sustain me. Very often I find it a struggle to practice, preferring to write or zone out with a book or a DVD between classes.
At the end of last year I decided enough was enough and I needed to take some time for myself and my practice, so I booked a flight and went to stay with friends in the San Francisco bay area to take classes with a wonderful teacher in Berkeley, Donald Moyer. (Incidentally, Donald has a new book coming out in March. Check back here in May for a review.) It was a life-changing experience, one of those vacations that you carry with you for years to come. I took class every day for two weeks with a variety of teachers, sometimes twice a day, and wrote everything down so I could practice the new information when I got home. I came back refreshed and rejuvenated. More importantly, I came back with an understanding of a piece of the puzzle that was missing, the third limb in a three-limbed yoga for modern living:
Though the path of yoga is ultmiately solitary, it comes from a tradition of lineage, off the passing of information from teacher to student. Truly, you cannot learn all you need to know from a book. Any good teacher has a wealth of knowledge born of experience that cannot be communicated in words alone. Your teacher may not necessarily be fully enlightened. They do not need to to be the best teacher in the world, but they do need to be ahead of you on the path. You may have more than one teacher at a given time. You may work with one teacher for a period and then move on to another. The student-teacher relationship can take many forms. The instruction comes from context, from bearing and from example as much from the words the teacher uses. You surrender to their understanding of the subject matter and open yourself up to the way they impart it to you.
At the beginning, the student will be completely dependent on the teacher. They will most likely have no personal practice at all, given that they know little or nothing. But, as familiarity grows, the student begins to remember more and more and it becomes important for them to practice that on their own, at their own pace, according to their own individual method of learning. Eventually, after many years, the student will hopefully find that they need the teacher less and less. They are able to provide their own motivation and structure for learning. A good teacher will understand this and respect this part of the student's process of evolution towards mastery.
One of the secondary benefits of the class environment is the group experience, or satsang. The focus and experience of more than one individual united together towards a common goal amplifies the experience for each. That group experience does not have to be dependent on the class. Practicing regularly with others can help the student to self-motivate, but it will also help them put their own experience in context with that of others and can act as an immense source of encouragement. Much of the drudgery of practice can be alleviated in this way. As one of the great gurus of the modern age once said, "a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down".
And, of course, there is the personal practice. Here the student must work with their own inner resources of motivation and responsibility. Here it is possible to get lost as much in possibilities as in distractions. This is, after all, the ultimate point of any spiritual practice: to come up against the limitations of the self, to work with them, accept them and allow them to become transformed.
Finding The Balance
Each of these is essential in some proportion. One may not be ready for a personal practice, or perhaps one may not have the opportunity for being part of a practice group or satsang. One may only be able to get to class once in a while. Nevertheless, it is important to know that each of these aspects is important and, if absent, should be addressed in some way. My experience is extreme. I am certainly in no position to be in Berkeley every week to take class with Donald, much as I would love that. But then, I am at a stage in my practice where a little input goes a long way. Perhaps you are in the same position. Perhaps you still feel dependent on your teacher or teachers. How about giving yourself the experience of a little yoga adventure and practice a pose or two at home every day, nothing ambitious. Or maybe ask a friend to get together for a yoga-date.
Whatever you choose to do, I invite you to leave a comment and let me know your experience.